By KIERAN FINNANE
An experience of Arrernte culture right in the middle of town – a small group of people are not waiting for multimillion dollar centres to offer it. For three weeks from mid-June the old op shop behind Flynn Church will be transformed as “a place for language – apmere angkentye-kenhe”.
Left: Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM, at Mbantua Festival in 2013.
The town is invited to drop in and make a start on acquiring a vocabulary of 50 words in Arrernte, the first language of this place, and one of the most richly surviving, with an estimated 3000 speakers of the closely related Eastern and Central Arrernte dialects.
The word list will include place names of the key sites of the town, such as the hills rising around its centre, the river running through it, the peak of the ranges that is the nose of the Dreamtime dog.
The people behind this initiative are the Arrernte families who gather at the healing centre, Akeyulerre Inc, in partnership with the artists who gather at Watch The Space (WTS).
I caught up with two women, one from each group, who are taking a lead – Margaret Kemarre Turner OAM and Beth Sometimes. For years Mrs Turner has been one of the great champions of Arrernte language and culture, within her community and as a public figure, an important cultural go-between in town, and as an author, most recently of Iwenhe Tyerrtye: what it means to be an Aboriginal person (2010) with Barry McDonald.
Right: Beth Sometimes in her mwekarte.
Ms Sometimes is an artist although often drawn to work outside the ‘art world’. She is also board secretary at WTS. Along her unusual way, she has become a fluent Pitjantjatjara speaker, acquiring the language while living and working at Ernabella in the mid-2000s. And now that she is based here in Mparntwe / Alice Springs she is making progress in Arrernte.
As we talk, Mrs Turner often turns to her and speaks in Arrernte and Ms Sometimes either follows and replies or else repeats the words, getting the pronunciation down. She’s not afraid to make mistakes – an essential risk in learning a language, but the rewards are great.
“Everyone living here should have some knowledge of the language of this place,” she says. “Australia has a very monolingual culture and we take a lot for granted about what is being understood.”
Mrs Turner comments that Aboriginal people, wanting to be polite, might often smile and nod without really understanding.
“Language also plays a huge role in how people relate to place,” says Ms Sometimes – so Arrernte words will also offer Arrernte perspectives on their country.
For Mrs Turner “good quality” Arrernte is a priority for keeping the language strong into the future. People living in town are much more influenced by English as the language of the dominant culture, with young people in particular “mixing up” Arrernte and English.
The word list for the project is likely to include some that people will have already seen written in various contexts around the town: apmere (place) for example, as in the Apmere Mwerre (good place) Visitor Park on Len Kittle Drive, and indeed as in apmere angkentye-kenhe – a place for language, the title for this Arrernte learning program.
All sorts of resources to help learners will be available in the transformed old op shop, including some to take away, such as a cap with mwekarte printed on it, meaning ‘hat’.
A specially created map will show the names of key sites that Arrernte people would like the rest of us to know and audio assistance will be at hand to help with the pronunciation.
Above, from left: The apmere angkentye-kenhe working group, Zoya Godoroja-Prieckaerts, Amelia Turner, Beth Sometimes, Lorraine Gorey, Hannah Treacey, Margaret Kemarre Turner, Margaret Carew, Leonie Palmer with Mathias Palmer, and Alison Furber. Just visible through the window, Dan Murphy.
To my comment that the spelling of Arrernte names can be challenging, Ms Sometimes answers with a comment from Amelia Turner (daughter of MK Turner, and current female chairperson of Akeyulerre Inc) – that learning English, to speak it, to read and write it, is also hard for Arrernte speakers.
There’s a useful article on the Central Land Council’s website that explains the reason why the modern spelling of Arrernte is the way it is. It basically comes down to this: there are sounds in Arrernte that do not exist in English so they can’t be spelled using English spelling conventions; and English spelling is not necessarily consistent when it comes to making sounds, for example, bury and berry, though and bough, cough and enough, just to mention a few.
So go with the flow, is the advice, and take advantage of an interesting introduction, with a variety of learning materials on offer over the three weeks.
Mrs Turner says she wants to have language about food, for example, getting it and eating it: “Why you have yam, honey ant … what it is, what it does for you … when you go hunting, getting kangaroo … it’s really important .”
This, with her philosophical bent, will be much more than an introduction to a bush ‘supermarket’. Hunting, gathering, cooking, eating are part of culture. She writes about this in Iwenhe Tyerrtye: The “eaters get eaten”, she says, describing the cycle in which humans take part. “We’re not fighting with our animals over the same food … something always eats something else … The rock wallaby eats the grass, and the carpet snake, antetherrke, eats that wallaby akwerrke, and we eat that antetherrke, you know? …
“We’ve always cooked and eaten all kere with respect. Even introduced animals we cook and eat with respect because … it was meat from those other people’s Sacred Land, a traditional food for a traditional people somewhere.”
The program will include screenings, with a relative wealth of material to choose from – many language learning resources have been made over the years, not to mention a range of productions from the extensive CAAMA catalogue.
These are being added to all the time from a variety of sources, as we saw in the recent Indigenous language film program, that was among the sold-out sessions of the Something Somewhere film festival. The program was called Arrpenhe-nthenhe – meaning ‘where’s the other one?’.
Above: Miles Turner as the dingo in Mother Tree.
It included two Arrernte films. The first, produced by Akeyulerre Inc, featured the artist Therese Ryder, speaking in Eastern Arrernte, telling a Dreamtime story called Mother Tree, which she had heard from her uncle.
The tree is a river red gum, an old one with a hollow trunk – the mother providing shelter and protection to her children. The film cut between Mrs Ryder telling the story and scenes featuring successive pairs of children, playing the story’s brother and sister, growing older with the passing seasons. They roam the country in search of food – yam, wild onion, bush banana, bush orange, birds – with the brother all the while keeping his eye out for danger, embodied by a dingo.
When the dingo (played by Miles Turner, see still image above) is on the prowl the children run to the Mother Tree, to the safety of its hollow trunk. The ending isn’t a happy one, but I won’t spoil it by telling you, in case this film shows again as part of apmere angkentye-kenhe. It would be a good one for learning, with the repetition of words and phrases built into its telling.
The second Arrernte film in Arrpenhe-nthenhe combined contemporary scenes with archival footage – 8mm film shot in the 1950s by Father Tom Dixon. This is the priest who later became well known for his campaign in defence of Arrernte man Rupert Max Stuart, on death row in South Australia for the murder of a little girl in 1958. (Mr Stuart’s sentence was commuted and he was eventually released, going on to become chairman of the Central Land Council). Before all of that, Fr Dixon was a missionary in Santa Teresa, arriving in 1954 and leaving two years later. In that time he learned to speak the language and led a building program, working alongside the locals, to build houses from stone they quarried themselves.
His 8mm footage has now been used as the foundation of a new film, The Stone Houses, produced by Mary Flynn and Maya Newell for the Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation and Jesuit Social Services. It cuts between the 1950s scenes of everyday life on the community, including the construction of the houses, and surviving elders, filmed in the community, watching and commenting on the footage and remembering life as it was then.
Left: Margaret Kemarre Turner (in red) as bridesmaid at Santa Teresa. Still from the film The Stone Houses. (This photo replaces an earlier image from the film, changed for cultural reasons.)
We see Mrs Ryder as a young girl, Mrs Turner as a young wife. Before a marriage took place, the mission insisted that the couple have a house to live in. She duly got hers: “I thought I was married to a clever man who could build a house.”
Peter Wallace comments on the “hard work” of the quarrying and building – it was “nothing” to the men of the era. Leonie Palmer expresses her thanks to the missionaries who “grew us up to be independent”.
In similar vein, Mrs Turner expresses some upset to see “the good way we grew up”.
But some of it must have gone against the grain They weren’t allowed to talk language, one woman reports. It was punishable by a strap on the hand, she says, though this is at odds with Fr Dixon apparently having been able to learn the language in the few short years he was there.
Whatever the case, the Arrernte language survived alongside the English that can also be heard in this film. As Margaret Carew, curator of the Arrpenhe-nthenhe program, commented, English is also an Aboriginal language.
The other languages featured were Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, Alyawarr, Mudburra and Warlpiri. The films used a range of approaches and were consistently well produced, with high quality image, sound and story-telling. Standouts for me were:
• the claymation series, Kardiyarlu kangurnu, produced by PAW Media, which uses the animation technique to great and humorous effect to illustrate the stories being told by Warlpiri people of strange encounters of the cross-cultural kind – with white people, tinned meat, rabbit, baking powder.
Above: First meeting with Olive Pink, as recounted by Jerry Jangala Patrick in Kardiyarlu kangurnu.
• Warlungka – Language lived through song, produced by father-daughter musical duo, Rayella (see still at bottom), and Felicity Meakins. Most of the film’s passionate message about Mudburra language survival is spoken by Rayella daughter, Eleanor Dixon, who with father Raymond is using song to help Mudburra children retain their cultural heritage through language. The film is memorable for the beauty of their homeland, Marlinja, and a wonderful sequence where the children, dispersed through the bush, each one standing alongside a tree, sing the song of the film’s title.
• Artnwer – Desert Dingo, produced by CAAMA, striking for the beauty of its cinematography, which summons the allure of this Dreaming story of two dingo pups on their travels north, all the way to Mornington Island. We learn little of what actually happens along the way, it being secret business for men, but we do get a sense of the vast sweep of the songline across a magnificent landscape and of the intensity of the elders’ feeling for and commitment to their cultural heritage.
Towards the end of their journey they come across a disturbed sacred site and express regret that their young people are not maintaining sites. But a younger generation of Aboriginal men – including director David Tranter and narrator Michael Liddle – have come together to make this film and perhaps through it can help keep the flame alive.
Left: Donald Crookhat Thompson, senior Alyawarr custodian of the Dingo Dreaming, in Artnwer.
If you put together the repertoire of this film program (knowing that there is a lot more there to draw from) and the development of the three-week Arrernte language program being staged in the old op shop, you have a rich, dynamic cultural experience – of the kind tourists, let alone many locals, are craving.
Sounds a lot more enticing for a visitor experience in the CBD than a collection of fossil bones, whatever their inherent interest for science and for visitors with somewhat specialised imaginations.
And these experiences are being produced and offered on the smell of an oily rag (especially the language program) in contrast with the $1.5m being promised for the bone museum. One would have to wonder what kind of research and consultation that proposal has relied upon.
Note: apmere angkentye-kenhe will take place from 16 June to 9 July.
Below: Eleanor and Raymond Dixon of Rayella fame in the film Warlungka – Language lived through song.